Social media lessons from Charlotte Dawson’s sad saga

How would you react to negative social media comments about you, your friends or fellow workers? Do we need more outspoken celebrities like Charlotte Dawson?

When I was a child, if bad things were said about you they were confined to the playground (or outside of school in the workforce) to a small group of those who cared to listen. Nowadays, with the rise of social media, the playground and the workplace have been replaced a global stage of potentially defamatory comment. These “trolls” posting on social media sites, including Twitter and Facebook, can lose you your job or that of your staff.

Yesterday we saw this first-hand with the staffer at Monash University who tweeted to celebrity Charlotte Dawson and her New Zealand based fan, to “go hang herself”. The fan had previously lost her partner to a hanging suicide. Dawson has a reputation for saying what she thinks and she took on the tweeter. As she said, “Mess with me fine, I’m used to it, but mess with my fans and I have a responsibility to take these people to task”.

As an ambassador for the prevention of online bullying with Community Brave, Dawson’s search for the tweeter led her to Monash University where the staffer was employed. The University, painfully slow to react, announced that while they don’t condone defamatory comment they adhere to free speech. After some hesitation they finally stood down the staffer — on pay.

The implications are plain for all to see. Tweet or post nasty things and risk being named and shamed — and potentially lose your job. Last night, to add to the fall-out, Dawson was admitted to hospital evidently suffering from stress.

So what would you do in your company, for your staff? And where does the law stand?

Alec Christie, partner at law firm DLA Piper says there is “no doubt” that the law still needs to catch up with the digital implications facing corporates and individuals.

“But the good news is the practical application of the law is catching up as enforcement agencies are becoming much more likely to act on cyber harassment and social media trolls,” he said.

While the law may need to catch up on addressing digital defamation, law enforcement agencies around the world are becoming more active in searching for the perpetrators of digital bullying.

Take the recent example in the UK where a 22-year-old man from Southend in Essex was arrested in connection with racist Twitter messages sent to West Ham United footballer Carlton Cole. Cole re-tweeted the offending comment and Essex Police, posting on their own Twitter account, confirmed the man has been “arrested on suspicion of a racially aggravated public order offence following tweets sent to Carlton Cole.”

In another incident, a man was arrested in relation to abusive Twitter postings targeted at British Olympic diver Tom Daley. Daley, 18, one of the stars of Team GB, announced he wanted to win a medal “for myself and my dad”, who had died of brain cancer a year earlier. He and teammate Pete Waterfield finished fourth in the 10m synchronised platform and soon afterwards received a torrent of malicious messages on Twitter. Dorset police arrested a 17-year-old man at a guest house in Weymouth, “on suspicion of malicious communications” for allegedly threatening the diver.

So what can we do to protect ourselves, and our employees, from the ills of social media?

Here are my top tips:

1. Monitor social media sites linked to you – set up a listening service

2. Be aware of the implications of negative comment about you and your business

3. Know what people are saying so you can react in an appropriate and timely matter

4. Have an employee social media policy in place that staff can understand

5. Let people know the consequences of posting inappropriate things

6. Have a prepared crisis response in case of attack

7. Don’t be afraid to speak out

8. Don’t be afraid to find the perpetrators!

Last night I was interviewed for my thoughts on defamatory social media posting and will be again tonight on Channel 10. Rami Mandow, chairman of the Community Brave Foundation, left a note on my Facebook page as a result: “We absolutely need to stop this disturbing online trend from escalating out of control. Social media should be a space where healthy debates are hosted – not a space where negativity can develop into a tragic impact level event (Youth Suicide).”

I’m right behind that sentiment. Have you checked who is tweeting or posting about you right now?

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